In Christina Stoddard’s debut collection of poems, Hive (University of Wisconsin Press 2015), the poetry is narrated by a teenage Mormon girl living in the port city of Tacoma, Washington. I currently live in Tacoma and I sat down with Stoddard at a restaurant in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood to talk about her craft decisions and the experiences that informed the book. Stoddard’s work reminds us that Washington is home to serial killers Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway, whose victims from the state were young women. There are other acts of violence that have happened in Washington, too. Stoddard’s poems explore brutality in the Pacific Northwest, making startling and unsentimental connections between gender, violence, class, race, and religion. I spoke to Stoddard about Tacoma, where she grew up, and about her craft decisions.
The Rumpus: Why did you start the collection with the poem, “Bodies of Two Girls Found in Woods”?
Christina Stoddard: Partly, it’s that I wanted a reader to know right away what type of a book this is. I’m not pulling any punches. There are two murdered girls in the woods on page one. A reader will either keep going after that or shut the book and put it down.
These are things we don’t talk about and I’m here to talk about them. You will either come along with me on that—or not.
Rumpus: I had a moment when reading your book when it felt like I got hit in the gut. I was reading your poem “Jacks” and thought, This collection describes how it felt to be a young woman experiencing violence at the height of neoliberalism. The poems demonstrate great craft and beauty, but the subject matter had me flipping out of my seat.
Stoddard: Wow. Thank you so much. I think your first description is certainly true of the book. The main narrator of the poems has no idea what neoliberalism is and doesn’t have any larger context of what’s happening, but it’s really true that as you understand things in retrospect, looking back on what the 1980s and 1990s were like politically and socially, and how that has led us to where we are today.
You know, there’s a saying in creative writing classrooms that if going in the front door of a piece doesn’t work, find a window. And so finding the viewpoint for “Jacks” and finding the entry point—do I start the poem saying these girls are on the porch playing jacks or do I start it in the middle with gunfire? How do I begin, how do I end and what slice of that moment is going to show the world these girls live in?
Earlier drafts of the poem start with a description of the lowrider coming around the corner and I cut all that. I began it in the middle with bullets and I withhold the word bullet for a few lines of the poem so the reader is initially intentionally disoriented the way the girls are in the first stanza of the poem: I’m facedown on the porch/ where I threw myself/ as soon as the lowrider/ turned up its bass.
We start there and we don’t get to gunshots until the second stanza even though they’re there all along. It was really hard to figure that out, but then once I had it, I knew it was right. I knew that was how to begin the poem.
Rumpus: And then there’s “Raped Girl’s Mad Song,” which uses form as a way to contain or shape the violent subject matter.
Stoddard: I tried to build so many layers of control and anger in “Raped Girl’s Mad Song.” I chose the villanelle as the form for the poem because of that. For one thing, a villanelle is traditionally a love poem, and yet this is actually a poem about revenge against an attacker. I like the idea of turning the form on its head in that way. And sexual assault is always about power and control.
Using the constraints of the villanelle form also ended up being a way to keep the narrative brushstrokes very spare. The rape referred to in the title happens almost entirely offscreen, so what moves the poem along are the refrain lines, not the plot, and I think that’s a good thing for the subject matter. Because the point is not the progression of what happens during this violent encounter, but the larger fact that this violence happens at all.
Rumpus: How did you make the decision to put the poems together? It’s not driven by chronological time. There’s a poem early in the collection that’s clearly a flashback. Was it driven by narrative?
Stoddard: It was pretty daunting at first to look at my whole body of work—more than a decade’s worth of poems—and try to figure out how to assemble them into a manuscript that hung together. The main breakthroughs came from working with two amazing mentors, Claudia Emerson and Ellen Bryant Voigt, first at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and then the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. 2011 was a really big turning point for me in writing Hive. I started to figure out that I could use a persona, this teenaged girl, and have most of the poems be in her voice. Once I had my point of view character, I wrote a lot of new poems in order to make her story more complete. I had to make myself write all the things I was terrified to say, scared of having people know. That’s just what you have to do.
Ultimately the three sections of the book are organized around different ways of knowing, or different types of knowledge. In Section I, the speaker is limited in what she knows. A lot of the poems end without any obvious epiphany, while there are still unanswered questions. The flashback you referred to is the poem “I Am Thinking of Salmon,” which fits into that theme of interrogating the self with unanswerable questions. The second section telescopes outward and we get a wider view, less tightly hunched. In the third section most of the poems show the speaker as slightly older, a young adult. And the questions shift. Now the poems are asking: after all this horror, how do you learn to love the world again? What life can you build of broken things? Can we re-make ourselves without forgetting where we began?
Rumpus: There are recurring characters in this collection. There’s a main narrator that evolves. What’s the tension between fiction and poetry for you?
Stoddard: It is certainly true that I borrowed some techniques from fiction and I did that consciously and deliberately. There are some definite story arcs to the book and there is one main narrator; we get her as the point-of-view character who recurs, who evolves as you said.
We also get her friends, parents, and lots of concrete details. There’s a reference to a deli in the neighborhood and specific places they go, and the name of the school that they go to, Jason Lee Middle School, which are all real places. In fact, we can see Jason Lee Middle School right now from where we sit [inside Southern Kitchen soul food restaurant].
These are all real places that anchor the poems in the real world. That’s very important to me. Some poetry exists in a cerebral place or a place of dreams and I do write that as well, but when I was writing this book I wanted it to have that sense of cohesion.
One of the reasons why the characters have names, though, is both to create the world and to give it context. You only know who a person is in contrast and comparison to what is around her. To have a world you need people, and to recreate the city of Tacoma in the eighties and nineties, you need to have people who live there.
So, one reason to have characters with names in a book of poetry is also partly to acknowledge that they lived. The characters are based on real people. A lot of them are compilations. The character Maureen is the speaker’s best friend and Maureen is tougher and sassier than our point-of-view narrator. She helps the narrator be a little more badass and find her courage. Maureen is a compilation of one of my good friends with other people rolled in.
And I think you have to do that. A fiction writer or a poet has to do that with their characters. But acknowledging that these people existed, giving them names is a way of keeping them real.
Rumpus: So the book is an elegy?
Stoddard: Yes, it is. The people who lived in Hilltop are real people. The people who die in the book, those people died. The two girls who get locked in the house and the man burns the house down on purpose with them inside? Those girls died. That’s another reason why they have names: to acknowledge that they were here and that someone cared about them, to elegize them.
Rumpus: When I moved to Tacoma, Hilltop was a word some people used to signal something scary, something that meant people of color.
Stoddard: You know the drinking game “I Never”? My trump card in “I Never” was, I never had a pizza delivered to my house ever in my life because no one would drive into my neighborhood. There was a pizza place four blocks away that wouldn’t deliver to my house because they were just over the dividing line between Hilltop and the nicer area.
Rumpus: How has your neighborhood changed?
Stoddard: It’s changed a lot from when I was growing up. My parents moved into their house one block off Sprague Avenue when I was two years old. My parents lived in that house from 1979 until 2013. They lived here through quite a lot of social and demographic changes. This neighborhood in the eighties had a lot of Asian immigrants from various countries. We had Cambodians and Vietnamese people; we had a lot of black people. And so it was a very racially diverse neighborhood but it was not a wealthy one.
Rumpus: The neighborhood in the book is not a wealthy one. Yet the public face of the Mormon Church is the Romney clan.
Stoddard: Oh, I know. Yeah, I don’t even recognize that [public image] as being my people. It’s kind of crazy.
Mormon congregations are geographically-based. You go to the chapel closest to your house. There’s a Mormon church down on S. 4th and L Street in Tacoma, right across the street from Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital. That’s the church I grew up going to.
Our neighborhood church pulled from a very poor, very working-class area. You were lucky sometimes if some families in our congregation showed up with shoes. And that’s not an exaggeration. One of my friends used to stay after church and give herself the equivalent of a sponge bath in the sink in the bathroom before she went home because they didn’t have running water sometimes. That was my world. Of course that’s not the image the Mormon Church chooses to broadcast.
Another interesting thing about our church was that because our congregation pulled from this neighborhood of immigrants, we had services live translated into Vietnamese and Samoan every single week. If you didn’t speak English well, they gave out headphones. Half the congregation was listening in English and half of them had headsets on and there was a guy on the left side in the front and another guy on the right side in the front and they were each speaking quietly into a microphone, live translating the sermon and the prayers. So it was an incredibly pluralistic church.
Rumpus: What role should pluralism play in poetry?
Stoddard: I think the main thing for my own poetry is that I’m driven to reckon with real things in the real world. I’m not afraid to have dirty hands. At least that’s the vein I’ve been writing in for quite a while. One argument that crops up a lot is that poetry has made itself less relevant—or even irrelevant—in American culture because it’s too self-absorbed. The old ivory tower debate. But I never want to end up in a situation where I’m prioritizing myself on the page all the time.
Even though a lot of the poems in Hive are autobiographical, any specific experiences of mine are not the point. The point is to tap into how universal or common that experience is, to give the reader that moment of connection and community with something larger. The beauty of art is that it allows us to live many other people’s lives and see things from completely different points of view.
Rumpus: Who are your poetry mentors?
Stoddard: Philip Levine was the first poetry I ever found where I recognized myself. The Tacoma Public Library had a new releases section and I found a Philip Levine book completely by accident. It was skinny, it didn’t look like the other hardcovers. I was a voracious reader so I would go to the new releases section and usually pick out science fiction novels to read, and then there was this skinny, skinny, tiny little book and I went, “What’s this?” And then when I opened it, it looked different, it had line breaks, it was poetry and I was like, “Yeah, okay,” and I added that to my stack of books in my arms and took it home.
Philip Levine is very narrative. He tells a lot of stories and he talks very frankly about working class Detroit. I think the book was What Work Is. That’s what brought me to poetry. I was like, Oh, poetry can do this? So then I started writing my own poetry in secret. Philip Levine showed me the way.